La Liga Review looks ahead to all of this weekend's Spanish League fixtures with Match Previews, Team News and Form Guides...
Saturday 29 March 2008 (Spanish Time)
20:00 Betis - Barcelona
22:00 Villarreal - Atlético Madrid
Sunday 30 March
17:00 Almería - Levante
17:00 Valladolid - Zaragoza
17:00 Getafe - Osasuna
17:00 Recreativo - Athletic
17:00 Espanyol - Racing
17:00 Valencia - Mallorca
19:00 Deportivo - Murcia
21:00 R. Madrid - Sevilla
Real Betis - FC Barcelona
Second placed Barcelona travel to Seville to take on Real Betis in a match that has been moved to Madrid and back to Seville in the last 24 hours. The game will now take place at Betis' Ruiz de Lopera stadium on Saturday evening after the Spanish Sporting Disciplinary Committee decided to suspend the Andalusian club's two-match home stadium ban on Friday afternoon. Late on Thursday evening the Spanish FA had announced that the game against Barcelona had to be played at Atletico's Vicente Calderon stadium. The whole affair has been handled appallingly and none of the parties involved comes out of it particularly well. You can read all about the whole sorry mess here.
Back to the football, and Barcelona have an opportunity to really pile the pressure on Real Madrid, who play on Sunday, by closing the gap at the top of the table to just two points. Rijkaard's side reduced the deficit to four points last week after beating Valladolid 4-1 at the Camp Nou while Madrid lost 3-2 at home to Valencia.
Barcelona beat Betis 3-0 the last time these two sides met earlier in the season and they should go in to this game looking to make this their fifth away win of the season. However, their preparations have been a little hampered by a combination of losing players to international duty, injuries and the endless speculation over Rijkaard's and Ronaldinho's futures.
Ronaldinho is again left out of the Barcelona squad, but has been defended by Rijkaard who said on Friday "Ronnie is in pain, and he isn't ready to play. But I wish everyone would leave all of this alone. We are all on his side and can't wait for him to return."
This is a difficult match to call, with Betis being incredibly unpredictable. The home side secured a decent 1-0 win at Osasuna last weekend and the off field events from this week will ensure that the home crowd will be more than up for it. Sitting just three points above the drop zone and with their Primera Liga future in doubt it is a must win for Betis as well.
Betis: W5 D2 L3 Barcelona: W5 D3 L2
Betis Squad: Ricardo, Casto, Melli, Ilic, Edu, Rivera, Odonkor, Caffa, Mark González, Capi, Xisco, Sobis, Juanito, Fernando, Damiá, Pavone, Lima, Juande.
Carles Puyol has travelled with the Barcelona squad after picking up an ankle injury in Spain's 1-0 win over Italy in midweek. Giovani Dos Santos, who has had pain-killing injections in his ankle, and Santi Ezquerro return to the squad but, yet again, Ronaldinho is still missing and Gaby Milito and Rafa Márquez are also out.
Valdés, Puyol, Edmílson, Sylvinho, Bojan, Eto’o, Abidal, Thuram, Zambrotta, Gudjohnsen, Touré Yaya, Pinto, Giovanni, Henry, Xavi, Ezquerro, Iniesta, Víctor Sánchez.
Villarreal - Atletico Madrid
Atletico secured a priceless 2-1 over Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan last weekend with goals from Maxi Rodriguez and Kun Aguero. On Saturday, fourth placed Atletico must travel to third placed Villarreal and with Racing Santander only three points behind them in fifth, and Sevilla and Espanyol also in the running for fourth place, the Madrid side cannot afford to slip up this weekend.
However, the home side will provide a formidable test for their visitors at a ground where Atleti have only ever won one of their nine games played there. Villarreal are on an eight-match unbeaten run that has seen them edge to within just two points of second-placed Barcelona and six points off of league leaders Real Madrid. With 27 points left to play for, a consistent Villarreal should not be ruled out of the title race.
Villarreal goalkeeper Diego Lopez is cautious, however, and today said "Real Madrid have six points on us, and have a better goal difference than us, so it would be very difficult to overtake them. Barca are closer and perhaps easier to catch, but our objective is to finish in the top four so that we can compete in the Champions League next season. That would be considered a great success for Villarreal."
Champions league qualification is also vital for big spending Atletico who have a habit of finishing the season badly. However, Diego Forlan who, along with Kun Aguero, has notched up 25 goals this season is determined not to let that happen this time around. This formidable strike partnership has helped their side to win three of their last four games and Forlan, returning to his old club, reckons that Sunday "is a key game for Atletico if we are to maintain our push for a top four finish."
Villarreal beat Atletico 4-3 when the two sides met earlier in the season in Madrid.
Villarreal: W6 D3 L1 Atletico: W4 D1 L5
Atletico: Portugal winger Simao Sabrosa picked up a muscle injury while on international duty against Greece during the week and has been left out of the squad. Seitaridis and midfielder Raul Garcia have, however, both recovered from injury and look set to make the trip to Villarreal.
Villarreal : Guillermo Franco, who scored the winner against Levante last week, picked up an injury while on international duty in midweek and will be out of action for three weeks. Giuseppe Rossi iis back in the squad and returns after scoring twice for Italy's U21's on Wednesday. Pascal Cygan is doubtful as he struggles to overcome a bout of tendonitis in his right knee.
Real Madrid CF - Sevilla FC
Madrid host Sevilla at the Bernabeu on Sunday in what is certain to be a high pressure environment, irrespective of Barcelona's result on Saturday. The visiting side have already beaten Real twice this season, in the league and in the Super Cup, and they will also be looking for a third vital win if they are to maintain their own aspirations: last week's defeat to Atletico has left Sevilla five points off a Champions League place, and defeat on Sunday would jeopardize their UEFA Cup qualification chances as well.
Madrid still lead the table on 62 points, but an abysmal run has seen Schuster's side lose five of their last eight La Liga fixtures and last week's 3-2 defeat at home to Valencia has led to speculation over the German coach's future in the Bernabeu hot seat. However, Madrid President Ramon Calderon has assured his manager that he will still be in charge of the Merengues next season, regardless of what happens at the end of this one, and the Bernabeu remains a formidable place to visit: Madrid have won 12 of their 14 games played there and last weeks's defeat was only the second time that Real have failed to pick up all three points at home this season.
All eyes will surely be on Luis Fabiano, this season's leading goal scorer (Pichichi), who has been strongly linked with a move to the Bernabeu this summer. Spanish press reports claim that Real Madrid have discovered that they can negotiate with GSI the company that owns 65% of the players registration and force through a cut price sale against Sevilla's wishes.
Sevilla ran out 2 -0 winners when the two side met at the Sanchez Pizjuan earlier in the season.
Form Guide: Real Madrid: W5 D0 L5 / Sevilla: W6 D1 L3
Pepe misses out with an injury picked up on international duty with Portugal in midweek.
Real Madrid confirmed squad: Iker Casillas, Dudek, Miguel Torres, Sergio Ramos, Heinze, Cannavaro, Marcelo, Diarra, Gago, Guti, Robinho, Drenthe, Baptista, Robben, Baptista, Saviola, Higuaín and Raúl.
Sevilla (confirmed): Palop, De Sanctis, Daniel, Crespo, Fazio, David Prieto, Mosquera, Poulsen, Keita, Renato, Navas, De Mul, Adriano, Duda, Capel, Luis Fabiano, Koné and Kanouté.
UD Almería - Levante UD
A match that highlights the contrasting fortunes of two newly promoted sides.
Tenth placed Almeria (39 points) will be looking for the win that will guarantee them Primera liga safety with 42 points. Furthermore, the home side still have an outside chance of earning a UEFA Cup spot: a remarkable achievement for Unai Emery's La Liga new boys. Almeria are unbeaten at home in six games but they did drop points in last weeks 1-1 draw with struggling Zaragoza and, after a tremendous start to the year, is it possible that Unai Emery's side are running out of steam with just one win in their last seven games.
Levante head in to Sunday's fixture on the back of a 2-1 defeat to local rivals Villarreal. Levante created the greater number of chances during the game and deserved at least a point from a team now 37 points above them. Unfortunately for Levante, when you are bottom of the league, things never seem to go your way and the La Liga newcomers a now a certainty for relegation 13 points adrift of safety.
A win for Almeria would almost certainly condemn Levante and you have to fear for a visiting side that has lost 20 times already this season and picked up just one away win.
There is one glimmer of hope for the visitors: Levante beat Almeria 3 -0 in the reverse fixture earlier this season.
Form Guide : Almeria W4 D4 L2 / Levante W3 D2 L5
The only news so far is that injured midfielder Corona will be absent for Almeria, but otherwise Emery will have a full-strength squad to choose from.
Real Valladolid - Real Zaragoza
These are two sides that at times this season have played some great football, yet they find themselves mired in a relegation battle. 16th placed Zaragoza are just one point and one place above Valladolid in the table; and Valladolid are only above the relegation zone courtesy of goal difference.
These two sides haven't met in the Spanish top flight since Zaragoza did the double over Valladolid to help send them down three seasons ago. However, this season's form suggests that the home side might just have the edge over their visitors: Zaragoza's 1-0 win at Almeria in October was their only away win of the season and Valladolid were 3-2 winners in the reverse fixture earlier this season.
Form Guide: Valladolid W2 D2 L6 / Zaragoza W3 D2 L5
Team News: to follow...
Getafe CF - CA Osasuna
Michael Laudrup believes that a home win over Osasuna on Sunday is far more important than a win over Bayern Munich in next week's UEFA Cup quarter-final first leg.
Getafe are Spain's only team left competing in three competitions - they also have a Copa del Rey final against Valencia ahead of them in April. However, los Azulones are ninth placed in La Liga but a worrying seven points above the drop zone with 39 points.
Laudrup said yesterday: "It is important to emphasise that Sunday's game is fundamental to us. The three points would take us over the 40-point mark and take us another step closer to ensuring we have a place in the Primera Liga again next year. After that, we have other difficult games in the Copa del Rey and UEFA Cup. A win on Sunday means more to us than a win in Munich next Thursday."
Last week's 1-0 defeat away to Athletic Bilbao ended a 13 match unbeaten run for Getafe in all competitions and Laudrup will not let his side rest on their laurels, he added:"We're doing all right in the league, but if we don't win on Sunday things could start to get tricky for us two or three weeks from now. It would be ridiculous to get ourselves in such a situation after all the hard work we have done this season. We've had a full week to prepare and should take to the game well rested and fully focused."
The visitors believe that they must also win this game. Osasuna are teetering just two points above the relegation zone in 14th place. Defender Miguel Flano said "We are going through a tough period at present. We are not being consistent enough and that's why we are in the predicament we are. It's easier when you are higher up the table, there is less pressure. But now is when everyone has to stand up to be counted. On Sunday we have to go out and give our all for the three points."
Osasuna's record on the road does not bode well for them on Sunday: they have lost nine times away from home already this season and picked up just nine points on their travels - scoring just twice in their last seven.
Getafe were 2-0 winners in the reverse fixture earlier this season.
Form Guide: Getafe: W5 D3 L2 / Osasuna W4 D2 L4
Getafe should have Esteban Granero back but there are doubts over defenders Mario Alvarez and David Belenguer. Midfielder Pablo Hernandez and defender Daniel Diaz are both out through injury.
Osasuna Striker Xabier Maigarez and winger Ludovic Delporte are both injured while midfielder Javad Nekounam, forward Carlos Vela and defender Cesar Cruchaga face late tests. Defender Josetxu and midfielder Javi Garcia are suspended.
RCD Espanyol - Real Racing Club
These two sides sit on the verge of qualifying for European football next season, yet the prevailing moods in both camps is altogether quite different.
Racing beat Recreativo last week to move up in to fifth place (47 points) and overtake Espanyol (7th place 45 points) , who lost out 4-0 to Murcia.
Espanyol have lost seven of their last ten La Liga fixtures and after dreaming of Champions League qualification earlier in the season, they have now face a tough battle for a UEFA cup spot.
However, Racing coach Marcelino does not believe that Sunday's game will be decisive in the race for Europe, but that a defeat would be very costly for his opponents who are under the greater pressure in fron of their home fans. Marcelino said: "If Racing win it would be a significant step forward for us and for Espanyol it would be a major blow."
With Racing holding a two point advantage over their rivals, Marcelino believes that "If Racing lose then we won't have lost that much overall and will still be within a point of Espanyol."
The Racing coach, who will not comment on the growing speculation that he will leave the club in the summer , said of his opponents: "Espanyol are a powerful side in terms of their attacking capabilities with two international forwards and a winger." Marcelino warned, however, that "without Iván de la Peña they lose the ability to break quickly. He is an important player for them as he can hurt you with three quick passes and knows how to make you chase the game."
The two sides drew 1-1 in the reverse fixture earlier this season
Form Guide: Espanyol W3 D0 L7 / Racing W4 D3 L3
Pablo Zabaleta and Milan 'Lola' Smiljanic should be fit for Espanyol after recovering from injuries and both played in a midweek friendly. Francisco Joaquín Pérez Rufete and David García are both doubtful however, and Iván de la Peña, Jesús Mari Lacruz and Alberto Serrán are all definitely ruled out of Sunday's game.
Recreativo de Huelva - Athletic Club Bilbao
Ten league places separate these two sides, with the home team languishing in 18th (32 points) and the visitors sitting comfortably in eighth (39 points).
There may be just seven points between the two sides, but Athletic know that they are just one win away from guaranteed safety and for a side that has been involved in relegation battles over the last few years, that means a lot.
All is not lost for Recreativo, however as they host an Athletic side who are poor on the road and have lost on seven occasions away from home this season. Recreativo know, that with the bottom of the table so congested, just a couple of wins would see them almost safe.
Athletic Bilbao were 2-0 winners the last time these to sides met earlier in the season
Form Guide: Recreativo W3 D2 L5 / Athletic W5 D2 L3
Valencia CF - Real Mallorca
Javier Arizmendi's late winner for Valencia at the Bernabeu earned Ronald Koeman some much needed breathing space and the former Barcelona star has probably just saved his job - at least until the end of the season. The Valencia coach oversaw a thrilling 3-2 win at the Bernabeu last Sunday that capped off a remarkable week for his side after they dumped Barcelona out of the Copa Del Rey on the previous Wednesday.
That win over Madrid leaves Valencia a little closer to La Liga safety, on 39 points, but that is still not good enough for a side that should be competing for a Champions League spot. At least a place in the Copa Del Rey offers a shot at a UEFA cup spot for next season.
Mallorca sit just two points behind Valencia but will stand a good chance of picking up at least a point, considering that they've drawn away from home eight times already this season.
Valencia were 2-0 winners in the reverse fixture earlier in the season.
Form Guide Valencia: W3 D3 L4 / Mallorca W3 D6 L1
Raul Albiol is a doubt for Valencia and was unable to train on Friday after picking up a fever. Carlos Marchena is definitely missing for Los Che, as is Vicente through injury.
Deportivo La Coruña - Real Murcia
Javier Clemente recorded his first win as Real Murcia coach with a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Espanyol last week. Murcia had lost both their previous two games under their new coach, letting in seven goals.
That win represented Murcia's first since January 6th and their first point since February 3rd. However, they remain in 19th place in La Liga - seven points from safety - and it looks as if that win was too little, too late.
Deportivo must also win this game if they are to steer clear of the drop zone in spite of a reasonable upturn in fortunes since the start of the year. However, last weeks 1-0 away defeat to Mallorca leaves Depor just two points above the relegation zone. Juan Arango's first half goal for Mallorca condemned the visiting side to their 13th defeat of the season: only Levante and Murcia have lost more games than Deportivo and both of them are virtually guaranteed to go down.
Deportivo won the reverse fixture 2-0 earlier in the season
Form Guide: Deportivo W5 D2 L3 / W1 D1 L8
Team News: to follow